What Did Dela Wear? She Wore a Brand New Jersey

Apologies – I just couldn’t help myself.  These are just some of the corny lyrics from the song “Delaware” written by Irving Gordon and sung by Perry Como and others.  It came out in 1959 – dating myself I know – with puns involving 15 states.  It just popped into my head as I started to write this blog about my 50/50/50 visit to Delaware which followed my visit to New Jersey.  I can remember many of the silly lyrics from those many years ago.  Now if I could only have remembered to take my tripod out of the overhead luggage bin on my flight from Boston to Nevada last week.  Not fair…

When I started planning this trip several months ago, much of the route could have been chosen in a variety of ways and orders, but one part was clear.  I would bird in Southern New Jersey in and around Cape May and then I would take the ferry from Cape May to Lewes, Delaware with the prime birding target being Bombay Hook NWR, like Cape May itself, another legendary birding spot I had not visited before.  The two areas were almost like one in my mind and I will use that as the excuse for the lyrical reference.

Cape May, N.J. – Lewes, DE Ferry – 17 Miles 85 Minutes

Lewes Ferry

I had originally reserved space on a mid-afternoon ferry figuring I might need or want more time at Cape May, but the birding there had gone well so I decided to try for an earlier ferry giving me more time in Delaware.  The focus and framework for this adventure of mine is about the birds but so many of the best moments are about people – even little moments.  One such was my interface with the attendant at the ferry toll booth.  I had prepaid well in advance to be sure to have a space on the boat, not knowing what to expect traffic wise.  Checking online, I knew there was room on the earlier ferry The hope was to just drive up early and be allowed to change.  Not only was I able to get on the earlier ferry, I was able to get a partial refund as the original plan was for a second passenger and he was unable to join me.  More meaningful to me was the great conversation with the attendant.  She wanted to know about birding, Seattle, my travels etc.  Granted there were no other cars waiting behind me, but this personal connection was really great – and I could understand every word even with her “Joisy” accent.  A great start to the day.

Birds were relatively few and far between on the ferry crossing, but I did have some Northern Gannets, Herring and Laughing Gulls a good way to start a list.  I had read about Prime hook NWR which was on the way to my hotel and had great birding there for about 90 minutes – with a good mix of shorebirds and passerines.  My favorite shorebird was probably a very cooperative Solitary Sandpiper.  A Blue Gray Gnatcatcher was my favorite passerine.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper Wings Up

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher1 - Copy

I had 36 species there.  With the few from the ferry and some incidentals (gotta track those Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows) along the way, I was pretty sure that I would have 50 species this day – again relieving pressure from the next day which is when I had expected to make the push.  This was pretty much confirmed by the birds at my next stop, the DuPont Nature Center at Mispillion.  There were lots of shorebirds and my first Boat Tailed Grackle of the trip.  It was known as a great spot for Red Knots, but I had just missed the flock and got only a distant scope view of two birds.  The flock I did see was a group of over 50 Ruddy Turnstones.

Boat Tailed Grackle

Boat Tailed Grackle - Copy

Ruddy Turnstones

Ruddy Turnstones Flight

I was now over 50 species for Delaware and I had not even gotten to Bombay Hook NWR, my next stop.  There I had 44 species with a great mix of gulls, terns, waders and some passerines pus lots of shorebirds including hundreds of Dunlin and Short Billed Dowitchers.  A highlight was a photo of a Clapper Rail and another was a brief visual of two Seaside Sparrows.  Interestingly Snowy Egrets outnumbered Great Egrets 25 to 5.

Clapper Rail

Clapper Rail (2) - Copy

Dunlin – Just A Photo I like

Dunlin Profile - Copy

I would return the next day, but I had 70 species for the day – so I was again a day ahead of schedule.  The next morning I started birding at a small marshy area next to my hotel.  The 10 species included the loudest Carolina Wren I had heard and that is saying a lot.  Not unlike our Bewick’s Wren in Washington, this species has a wide ranging repertoire and I think I heard most of it.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren2 - Copy

My first official stop was the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  Here were primarily passerines including a vociferous Orchard Oriole.  It was the first decent look I had had of a male on the whole trip.  Other good birds were Blue Grosbeak, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher and Field Sparrow.  I wanted to get back to the DuPont Nature Center to look for Red Knots.  They were being seen at their go to place, Bottle Beach, in Washington but I might not get back in time to see them there.

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole1 - Copy

The tide was better and so were the birds at DuPont compared to the previous day.  The 25 species included 10 species of shorebird:  800 Ruddy Turnstones, 700 Dunlin, 14 Willets, 2 American Oystercatchers and 140 Red Knots among others.



Red Knots and Others

Red Knots - Copy

The shorebird spectacle was great but the highlight came from a marshy field as I was leaving.  From both sides of the road I heard the unmistakable buzzy insect like song of the Seaside Sparrow.  My only picture of one was from Alabama last year.  It was near the top of “Pictures I Most Want to Improve” list.  They hid at first and then several came into the open singling away from atop the grass.  Now these were good photos.  I reported 10 individuals on Ebird, but I only covered a fraction of the good habitat and there were certainly many, many more

Seaside Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow - Copy

I returned to Bombay Hook NWR and again had great birding with 48 species in almost 3 hours.  Ten shorebird species with a surprising almost 100 Semipalmated Plovers and 25 Black Bellied Plovers.


Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Sandpiper1

It had been another great day in the smallest of the States. Over 70 species for the day and 87 for the State all told.  A last observation was of an emaciated looking Red Fox.  The previous day I had seen what had appeared to be an abandoned Red Fox Kit sitting on the side of the road in no fear of or perhaps oblivious to the cars that stopped for photos – including mine.  I wondered if the two were related.

Red Fox Kit

Young Fox1

Now it was time to head to Pennsylvania.

Magee Marsh: Marvelous May Migration Mecca

Day One…

There have been some long breaks between energetic spurts, but I have been birding now for almost 50 years.  The Mountains and Canyons of Southeast Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.  Islands off of Maine and South Florida.  All over California and of course all over my home state of Washington.  Some remote Alaska and Nome.  Off the North Carolina Coast and in the Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico.  I have birded in a lot of places and have been to many of birding’s iconic hotspots.  But I had never been to Magee Marsh.  It was a must do during my Eastern Birding Marathon.  I had a lot of other states to visit and I needed to try to catch at least part of the migration in each, so making it to the Biggest Week festival at Magee was not doable.  Getting there the next week was and it worked perfectly.

I broke up the long drive from West Virginia to Magee with a night of sleep in Somerset, PA.  It was odd to be there as that was on the route our family had taken on all of our “vacations” when I was a kid.  Vacations were unexciting visits to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – all of whom lived in and around Pittsburgh.  It was a drive of 4+ hours from our home in Maryland just out of Washington, D.C.  My memories were not good.  I was tempted to revisit some of those spots on this trip – see how they looked now, but I opted for more time birding.  Maybe another time…well, probably not.  Magee Marsh beckoned.

It and other nearby spots on Lake Erie in Ohio were famous as migrant traps where rather than crossing the large lake, passerines would often stop for a rest and refueling on their long journeys to breeding grounds in the north.  And especially if the winds from the north making their journey even harder, there might be a “fallout” where thousands of birds could almost literally fall from the sky, exhausted by their battles and rather than flitter endlessly at the tops of the trees, they might just sit in open view maybe even on the ground – easy to see and especially appealing to me – easy to photograph.  Fallouts at Magee were legendary.  It was what every birder hoped for.

I had seen fallouts before.  One on High Island when I was just beginning birding in the 1970’s and another at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas about that same time.  Hundreds of birds were at eye level – warblers, vireos, orioles and more.  Exciting…even exhilarating.  There had been a mini-fallout at South Padre Island in South Texas on our VENT Trip last year and it was quite a spectacle.  I was hoping for even more at Magee.  Furthermore, Cindy Bailey was flying out to join me for one day at Magee.  She’s is just beginning as a birder and those colorful warblers up close and personal could be a great way to encourage her interest.  Fingers were crossed.

Even though my planned 50 species day was not until May 16, I got there early enough on the 15th to check it out and to plan my approach for the following day.  I had noted 14 species as I had driven in Ohio on my way to Port Clinton where I would be staying that night.  I found another dozen as I drove from Port Clinton towards Magee.  I stopped first at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory Center and picked up another few species.  I was feeling pretty certain that I would have 50 species easily that day – taking the pressure off for the following one.

The main attraction at Magee is the Boardwalk, extending about 1.2 miles through the marsh with a mix of trees that are magnets for the migrating hordes. During the Biggest week in America Birding Festival, it is visited by throngs of birders – projected to be 90,000 during that week.  It is packed shoulder to shoulder and is hard to move along, but the atmosphere is electric with everyone sharing observations and helping others find their birds.  There were hundreds of birders there when I arrived.  I could not imagine what it was like the previous week.  The birds were there, too, not in great numbers, at least by Magee standards, and definitely not exhausted and down low to see, but with the team effort of all and the cooperation of so many excellent birders, all I had to do was look for a crowd with cameras and binoculars pointed up, approach, and ask “what do you have”?  Later I would catch on, find some birds on my own and reciprocate, but at the start this was a great way to go and quickly led to great birds – more than a dozen warbler species, vireos, flycatchers, and more.  Some were playing hide and seek.  Others like this Magnolia Warbler were more cooperative.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler1

I did not expect any new ABA Life birds on my visit but I had hopes for some new ABA Life photos.  In fact I expected an easy one would be of an American Woodcock.  In each of the past many years, one had been staked out in the open – even in the parking area.  No go this year – no Woodcocks.  But fairly early in the day, when I asked one group what they were looking at, the answer got my adrenaline up immediately.  They had a Blackburnian Warbler – not just a gorgeous bird but one I had seen only twice – forty years ago and and had never photographed.  It, too, played peekaboo but did provide some photo opportunities.

Blackburnian Warbler – ABA Life Photo #699

Blackburnian Warbler1 (2)

This was ABA Life Photo #699 and was probably the warbler I most wanted to see and photograph.  Not long after that I saw a familiar face.  I had met Laura Keene at a wild goose chase – literally.  She had come to the Finley NWR in Oregon looking for the Tundra Bean Goose that had been reported there.  I had missed it on an earlier chase but arriving much earlier this time, I was the first on the scene and found it in a large flock of Canada, Cackling and White Fronted Geese.  Laura was traveling with Bert Filemyr and Casey Weissburg.  The target had flown off just before they arrived disappointing Casey and Bert who came to the platform where I was stationed.  But Laura had gone to the other end of the marsh and had relocated it.  She texted Bert and Casey and they joined her and got their goose.  I joined them later and met Laura that way.

Laura and Bert had both been helpful in helping me find birders in other states that I could join on my 50/50/50 birding ventures and it was great to visit with her.  Laura is an incredible birder.  She has recently moved from Ohio to the San Antonio area in Texas.  She knows Magee well.  She also knows everywhere else well as she did a fantastic Big Year in 2016 ending with an incredible 763 species (a more incredible 815 if you include Hawaii).  More importantly she is known as a great friend to many birders, a wonderful resource in a wonderful community.  She hardly knows me, but I have found that same warm friendly spirit in all of my intersections.  [The next day I saw Laura again and she introduced me to Chris Hitt, another legendary birder who was the first to do a Big Year with 700 species in just the “lower 48” – meaning the ABA area less Canada and Alaska – an extraordinary accomplishment.  Chris, too, was wonderful and allowed me to tag along, sharing stories and helping me with many observations.]

Laura Keene (with other 2016 Big Year Birders Christian Hagenlocher and John Weigel

Laura Keene

Chris Hitt at Magee Marsh Appropriately

Chris Hitt

So Magee is obviously an important stop for many top notch birders and they come back year after year, but it is also a magnet for birders of all levels from all over the U.S. and the world.  Many were dressed in one of the standard birding “uniforms” with floppy hats, cargo pants and vests sporting patches or pins from birding hotspots that they had visited.  Still mostly a “white” crowd, but there were some birders of colors other than white and I heard many languages spoken.  A group of birders I had not seen before but for which Magee is famous is a large number of Amish birders – hard to miss with their unique attire.  I am told they are among the best birders there are and take this very seriously.  It was pleasing to see many families engaged in this activity together.

Amish Birders

Amish Birders

It was not a particularly birdy day and the birds were not always easy to see, but it was hard not to get a lot of birds with so many friendly and sharing eyes watching.  My species count got to over 60 and I decided to head off to another nearby hotspot, the Howard Marsh Metropark.  As I was pulling out of the parking area, I saw a big cluster of birders obviously looking at something – but on the ground.  Was this an American Woodcock after all?  From the car I asked what they had.  They had a Connecticut Warbler.  This is one of the most sought after birds that breeds in the ABA area.  It is a skulker, not all that common, a late migrant and almost impossible to photograph as it is usually buried in heavy undergrowth.

I parked the car – actually double parked the car – jumped out with camera in hand found an open spot among the 30 plus birders that were lined up trying for a look.  The bird gods were smiling on me as the Connecticut Warbler came briefly into the open immediately in front of me.  I rattled off photo after photo following it as it moved in and out of the light and the brush.  Some turned out pretty darn well and I had my milestone ABA Photo #700 and what a super bird to have that honor.

Connecticut Warbler – ABA Life Photo #700

Connecticut Warbler3

Later many more birders would get word that a Connecticut Warbler had been seen and they would gather hoping for a look.  At one point, there were more than 100 birders at the spot.  Some found it and some did not and I expect some claimed to have but…well, let’s not go there.

At Howard Marsh I added another 12 species for the day including several ducks and shorebirds.  I had not planned for this to be my 50 species day, but there I was with 80 species for the day including two new photos, reaching the 700 level which was important to me.  I had intersected with Laura Keene and had great interactions with dozens of other birders.  This was exactly what my 50/50/50 quest was supposed to be – great fun, people, places and birds – expanding my horizons and adding to my life.  And if having one of the species seen and photographed be a Blackburnian Warbler was special, then having another be a Connecticut Warbler was even beyond that – ultra special.  Fallout or not – it was a great day.  And the next day would be another one.

Day Two…

There had been little worry about finding 50 species in a day at this incredibly bird rich area, but it was still good to have the pressure off with the success of the previous day.  I certainly did not expect that anything could top adding the two Life Photos and reaching 700 and the  Connecticut Warbler really was that incredible – unlikely to be topped.  My warbler life list for the State of Washington is only 21, including 7 that have been seen very rarely in the state.  Magee is most famous for its warblers with 40  species having been seen there.  So far in 2019, 38 warbler species had been seen.  On my first day I had only 16 warbler species although I had missed some seen by others.  Maybe this day would add to the list.

When I got to the Marsh there were fewer birders than there had been the previous day, but it was early.  There also seemed to be fewer birds.  A storm that had been predicted for the night before, a critical element determining the birds present, had not materialized, and the sense was that many birds had departed at night.  It started as a slow go.  I saw Laura Keene again and it was this morning that she introduced me to Chris Hitt. Another highlight was meeting Shep Thorp on the Boardwalk.  He and several Tacoma area birders had been in the area for several days.  They had a good fallout the day before I arrived and also had good but somewhat slow birding at Point Pelee – another migrant trap  – but in Ontario, Canada.  Shep had grown up birding in the east and had been to Magee often.  He is also an excellent birder.  He had some terrific videos from both places.  So even if the birds were not cooperating, it was a great day for people.

Maybe anywhere else, this would have been an excellent day birding.  At Magee, it felt disappointing, yet I had 20 species I had not had the previous day including 6 new warblers.  Black Billed Cuckoos also made an appearance as new arrivals.  If I had not gotten a photo of one earlier in Philadelphia that would have been a super find.  Not as super but still a welcomed bird.

 Black Billed Cuckoo

Black Billed Cuckoo1

Another highlight was seeing an Eastern Screech Owl on a roost somewhat in the open.  Owls are always special and this was only the second Eastern Screech Owl  I had photographed.  Thanks to Chris Hitt for showing me.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

When I was planning this visit, I had hoped to meet up with Danno Gesualdo.  I had met Dan on a pelagic trip out of Westport in my home state of Washington and then birded with him again on an awesome pelagic trip out of San Diego – just two of his many stops in an incredible Big Year done entirely in the Lower 48 and entirely without any plane travel.  He had visited all 48 states, seen 704 species, spent 208 days away from home and had driven more than 140,000 miles.  Let me repeat that – 140,000 miles!!!  Even simple math says that at an average speed of 60 mph, that translates to more than 2300 hours in the car – just under 100 full days – with NO sleep.  Call it what you will – impressive, dedicated, insane, extraordinary – it is awesome and inspiring!!

It was hard to coordinate with him because he was buried in some family matters and in trying to finish a book about his incredible journey.  He self published “Highways to Flyways: A Wheels on the Ground Year of Birding” using Blurb! in time to have it available at the Biggest Week in Birding Festival.  I would have ordered it online but it would not have arrived before I left on my own adventure.  Fortunately they still had some at the Black Swamp Visitor Center.  I finally connected with Danno just before getting to Magee and arranged to meet him on the 16th – with the original thought being it would be great to have some birding with him as part of my 50 species day.  We did meet in the morning and he wrote a nice note autographing my copy.

Highways to Flyways

We were able to spend some time together and it became immediately apparent how he was able to do his Big Year – he is an awesome birder – great eyes, ears and instincts.  On one trail we ran into David and Tammy McQuade.  I had first met them on a great pelagic trip with Brian Patteson our of Cape Hatteras last year and then our paths crossed again on the same pelagic trip with Danno out of San Diego.  They are doing a Lower 48 Big Year (again) this year and had just come to Magee after being on a repositioning cruise from L.A. To Vancouver B.C.  [As of May 29, they lead the pack in that pursuit with an jaw-dropping 623 species!].  They had seen the Connecticut Warbler earlier and were about to head off to another birding spot before tending to the business of business instead of the business of birding.  I have followed their travels on Facebook – especially enjoying Tammy’s  great photos (with much lens and quality envy).  I hope to bird again with Danno and with the McQuades some time.  Great birders and great folks – adding so much to the experience.

David and Tammy McQuade (Dressed to Bird!!)

The McQuades

I moved on to the Ottawa NWR Visitor Center and Boardwalk where I added another half dozen species for the day and the trip.  I had again seen 80 species in a day.  Had the previous day not been so good – especially with the two new ABA photos – I would definitely have used this day as the 50 species day because of the personal connections with Laura, Chris, Shep, Danno, Dave and Tammy.  Since it is my adventure and I get to make the rules, I am going to include both of these days…so there.

Some other photos:

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole on Orange

Bay Breasted warbler

Bay Breasted Warbler(2)

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler1

Chestnut Sided Warbler

Chestnut Sided Warbler2

Yellow Warbler on its Nest

Yellow Warbler on Nest

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Snowy Egret

2P5A1147 (2)

There might have been more species seen but I had an important meeting ahead and I had to leave early.  Cindy was flying in to Detroit.  Even though she had a million things to do and would soon be leaving on her own two week trip to Portugal, she wanted to share in my experience and was intrigued by stories of Magee Marsh and Kirtland’s Warblers.  She is a really good sport and I was looking forward to another introduction for her into birding – one that I thought she would enjoy.  A short vacation to Niagara Falls after the birding didn’t hurt her enthusiasm.  We would spend the night in Oregon, Ohio – a weird name for a Northwesterner visiting the area – and then hit Magee Marsh early and later make the long drive to Tawas, Michigan for the Tawas Point Birding Festival and a trip to Kirtland’s country.

Magee remained slow and the Warblers remained high up in the trees.  Not the enticing great looks I had hoped for and sort of promised.  But the spectacle was great as Cindy saw hundreds of birders sharing in my passion.  She was able to see some great birds and even found some on her own.  She, too, found the Amish birders quite interesting – not an everyday sight elsewhere.  And the weather cooperated and somehow she functioned well despite little sleep and a three hour time difference.  I think her favorite bird was probably the Magnolia Warbler she found with the Scarlet Tanager being a close second.  Or maybe it was the Yellow Warbler.  Good choices all.

Cindy’s Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler2

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

So that’s the story on Magee and my 50/50/50 adventure successfully completed – twice – in Ohio.  Not the incredible birding it might have been, but damn good and lots of fun.  113 species seen.  2 Life Photos.  Old friends seen again.  And a girlfriend that hadn’t given up on me or birding – yet.  Here is my favorite picture from the trip because Cindy chose it for her Facebook Photo without even telling me.  I guess it went okay!!

Cindy at Magee

And it got better as we moved on to Michigan and later to Niagara Falls.

The East is Done!!! – 100+ Species in New Hampshire

Today started the Memorial Day Weekend and also ended my 50/50/50 Birding Marathon in the East.  Finding 100+ species in New Hampshire today (May 25th) also meant that I have now observed over 50 species in a single day in all of the Eastern states.  Each state has been different in birds, people and places but all have been rewarding, fun and full of wonderful moments and memories and all have shown over and over what a great activity birding is and that our community is fantastic.

Mike Resch was my companion again today as he had been at the start of this marathon over three weeks ago in Connecticut.  There may be birders out there as good as Mike, but I don’t think any are better – both in the field and at home doing the preparations and logistics for a trip.  He has a sharp ear, a keen eye and a wealth of knowledge and experience.  I owe him a lot.

Before sharing the birds and stories of the day, I am going to go back to yesterday (May 24th).  A major purpose of my beginning the 50/50/50 Adventure was to visit people and places along the way that had meaning to me – whether returning to old haunts or finding new ones – seeing old friends again or making new ones.  On the way from my birding spot in Vermont to my birding spot in New Hampshire, I was able to spend time with my college roommate from Harvard, Charlie Ajootian.  For the most part I have lost touch with those long ago days and Charlie and I have had only a few intersections.  How appropriate to get together this week as it was exactly 50 years ago that we graduated.

Charlie now lives in rural New Hampshire.  He is not a birder but is an avid hiker and enjoys the outdoors as much as I do.  He and I were on the Harvard Track team together for 4 years.  Charlie was a champion hammer and weight thrower and shot putter and I did pretty well with the javelin.  In our rambling get together, we recounted stories from those competitions and our travels to meets not only in New England but also to Europe and to California.  It was a stellar team with lots of great athletes.  We reminisced about many of them as well.  We also talked politics.  Charlie’s view of the current state of affairs is even dimmer than mine.  We agreed that the best cures for such depression were more birding and more hiking.  If I had not undertaken this birding adventure, I would not have had this time with Charlie.  It is working even better than I hoped.

A Harvard Track Photo from a Long Time Ago

Javelin Record

I had arrived at our agreed meeting place earlier than expected so I squeezed in a little birding when I saw some Wild Turkeys displaying in a grassy field.  I took a couple of photos and then just as I was about to leave a Bobolink flew onto a fence just in front of where I was parked.  I have now seen several on this trip – never can have too many of one of my favorite birds.

Wild Turkey Strutting His Stuff

Wild Turkey



After leaving Charlie I drove to my hotel in Dover, N.H. and did a little more birding at the Rochester WTP.  The 24 species there included numerous Wood Ducks, a flock of Chimney Swifts and more Rough Winged Swallows than I can recall seeing at one time.  Also there was a Black Billed Cuckoo.  Before starting this marathon, I had seen this species twice – both times more than 42 years ago and neither time with a photo.  I got my Lifer photo of it on my Pennsylvania trip and then another observation and photo at Magee Marsh.  I got another photo here – not in the open and not in focus – but a reminder that there are unexpected treats out there to be enjoyed.

Black Billed Cuckoo

Black Billed Cuckoo

So much for appetizers, now back to the main course.  I met Mike Resch at one of his favorite spots – Reservation Road in the Pawtuckaway State Park.  He had promised great passerines and it was a promise kept.  We were constantly surrounded by bird song.  With the trees fully leafed out, it was not always possible to see our singers, but Mike got me on most of them.  We had 58 species in about 3 hours including 19 warbler species.  At Magee March I had my Lifer photo of a Blackburnian Warbler.  It was my favorite here as well followed closely by the Magnolia Warbler.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler5

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler1

With more than 50 species observed for the day, the rest of the day would be icing on the cake.  We dipped on a stakeout Trumpeter Swan (a first for New Hampshire) but at the stakeout for Mississippi Kite, we found it as soon as we got out of our cars.  Our only views were of it soaring above us so not the best of photos but all Kites are wonderful birds so I include it here.

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite2

After the Kite we were over 80 species and we still had the Coast to bird.  We didn’t time the tide very well so we missed some shorebirds but we still added almost 20 species to the day count and finished with 104.  Highlights for me were more than a dozen Purple Sandpipers and 3 Roseate Terns.  The biggest surprise were the Spotted Sandpipers.  I do not recall having seen them in a flock.  We had more than 2 dozen around the rocks on the beach including one flock with 15 birds.

Purple Sandpipers

Purple Sandpipers2

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Mike had been very generous with his time, and his expertise was critical to the success of this day as it had been earlier.  Birding is so different in the East compared to my birding in the West.  Knowing songs and calls is always a benefit but it is essential in the East with the many warblers, vireos and other passerines.  Also the forests are very different – dense with mostly leafy and tall deciduous trees.  My not knowing the songs is bad enough but I also have trouble picking out one song among the many that seem to be present all the time.  I have birded with and met many great birders on this journey and they all have a great ear and can quickly identify the species that way.  I need a visual to really enjoy the birds.  There were many great looks today and more partial views but many of the birds were simply never seen.

I did not take time to visit “special” places in either Vermont or New Hampshire – no battlefields or monuments, but in many ways the entire trip was experiencing a different world and perspective – again an objective of my 50 state project.  Everything about New England feels different.  The small villages, the curvy roads, the endless trees, the old homes of a very different style than out west.  Signs introduce every town proclaiming when they were established – usually more than 250 or even 350 years ago.  And there are those damn ticks and black flies.  But also lobster rolls and clam “chowdah” and yes, I heard many people pronounce it that way as well as talking about “wobblers” which since they were birders I fairly quickly understood to be “warblers”.  Of course I did see a special person – roommate Charlie – a big treat.

I have enjoyed this trip immensely but I am definitely looking forward to returning home and birding in the West again.  That transition starts tomorrow with a flight to Las Vegas.  I will go for 50 species in Nevada the next day and then return to Seattle.  A short rest and then back out again.  37 down and 13 to go.  I put on a lot of miles on this trip – about 4,000 – but that will seem like nothing when I next take on Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.  Lots of good birds ahead.

Birding in the Green Mountains

On May 10, 1775, fewer than a hundred of the Green Mountain Boys under the joint command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga.  Five years later, Benedict Arnold defected to the British side becoming the most famous or infamous traitor in American history.  Almost 11 years after that, Vermont became the 14th State of the Union and is known as the “Green Mountain State”.   It would be another 141 years in 1932 at the depth of the Great Depression before Ethan Allen became famous not as a military leader but as a furniture brand.

About 23 years later, my parents bought a set of encyclopedias that included a group of short books from the Landmark Series on American History/Folklore that included one on Davy Crockett and another titled “Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys“.  I devoured those books – taking me to places that existed only on their pages but fascinated me and left everlasting images.  Growing up in a drab Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. I often visited places like the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Institute – a treasure trove of riches for a young boy – but the idea of Green Mountains was of another sort.  Green Mountains seemed magical.

Ethan Allen

As I moved on to other parts of my life and discovered the West first in California and then the splendor of Washington where I would live for more than 45 years, I forgot about the Green Mountains.   On May 22 as I drove from Buffalo, NY through western Vermont on my way to Rutland where I would be trying to add yet another state to my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys came immediately back to mind.  To my Western eyes, the mountains were not imposing, but they were certainly green.  Even in the many small towns with their picturesque farmhouses or white steepled churches or white clapboard houses, there were trees everywhere.  Green. Green. Green.  So many trees.  I knew there would be birds, but would I be able to see any of them in the dense foliage?  It looked like one undifferentiated habitat.  Would there really be 50 species here?

Edmonds birding bud John Houghton was from Vermont.  He had given me the name of Sue Elliott as a great birder in the Rutland area that might be able to help me.  I contacted her and in a bit of confusing communication learned that the Rutland County Audubon Society had a walk scheduled for the West Rutland Marsh IBA (Important Bird Area on May 23 – a perfect fit for my schedule and a great way not just to find my 50 species but also to get the local perspective that was an important part of the 50/50/50 undertaking.  The confusion came from emails not from Sue Elliott but from Sue Wetmore.  Two people? or one person with two names?

It was a 6 plus hour drive from the Buffalo Airport where I had said my goodbyes to Cindy Bailey to Rutland.  I arrived in time to check out the Marsh that evening in anticipation of the birding the next day.  I immediately heard a number of noisy American Bitterns and then found a number of marsh birds along the boardwalk into the marsh and then walked just a short distance into some neighboring woods which I assumed would be part of the walk the next day.  I had 25 species in less than an hour and I had heard several songs I could not identify.  I relaxed.  I was certain I would have 50 species the next day … IF the forecast thunderstorms did not interfere and it was already starting to rain.  And that was a big worry.  In fact I thought that maybe I would have to change my ground rules and define a day as 24 hours – and have this one start at 6 p.m. on the 22nd so I could include these 25 species and hope there would be sufficient breaks from the rain to find more before 6 p.m. on the 23rd.  I shouldn’t have worried.

I arrived at the Marsh 20 minutes before the 7:00 a.m. start time for the walk.  On the way from the hotel I picked up a dozen “easy species” like House Sparrow, Common Grackle, Blue Jay, and European Starling – a good start.  At the marsh there were no people and also no booming Bitterns and no grunting rails.  Still plenty of Yellow Warblers though.  And the best news was that the weather had changed and the forecast of thunderstorms was pushed out to that night – if at all.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler1

Maybe 10 minutes later another car arrived.  “Are you Sue?”, I asked.  Yes.  “Are you Blair?”  It was Sue Wetmore who explained that I had been referred to her by Sue Elliott who would be leading the walk and they often birded together and called each other “Ditto”.  The other Sue showed up shortly thereafter with husband Marvin.  I tried staying close to them during most of the following walk and learned much about the area, birding and definitely the birds at the Marsh.  The walk was a 4 mile circumnavigation of the marsh with a group that started around 18 and dwindled to half that at the end.  There were a number of beginners and a number of experts including a young brother and sister duo who had both bionic ears and bionic eyes.  They were often the first to find many of the birds.  If they weren’t then one of the “Sues” usually did.

I had not realized that we would be doing a long walk away from the cars and had both too many layers and not enough (as in any) water.  It is tempting to blame my inability to hear and/or see many of the birds on those two matters, but the truth is simply that I was not able to identify the songs and thus had to rely almost entirely on others.  I missed many birds or was not comfortable counting them, but there were lots of birds and I did okay.  Altogether the group had 78 species.  I was comfortable counting 68 so no problem with 50 species for a day.  Included were 17 warbler species.  Some were heard only (or heard barely in my case).  Yellow Warblers were everywhere singing and setting up housekeeping.  Good looks at Black and White Warblers and a Blackpoll Warbler provided a good comparison of similar species.

Black and White Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler – A Comparison

Black and White Warbler1 blackpoll-warbler.jpg

Another good comparison was provided by good looks at both Philadelphia and Red Eyed Vireos.

Philadelphia and Red Eyed Vireos – Another Comparison

Philadelphia Vireo2  Red Eyed Vireo

Many of the birds were distant and/or hidden in the now verdant foliage.  It had been so much easier earlier in the month before the trees had leafed out or at places likes Tawas, Michigan and to some extent, Magee Marsh where the trees were shorter and less dense.  When you are big and beautiful and bold like a Baltimore Oriole, however, photos are an option.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole1

The best part of the visit was spending time with Ditto and Ditto.  These walks and other counts have been going on at West Rutland Marsh for more than 20 years and there is a wealth of knowledge about the arrival and presence of all the birds, breeding success etc.  They have also birded extensively both in Vermont and in many great places around the country.  Trading stories was great fun.  They really know their stuff and happily share it.

We had lunch at Mary’s Cafe after the walk – a very down home place in West Rutland where everyone knew each other.  How different from what has been mostly an anonymous big city existence for me.  Sue gave me directions for nearby places to try for Cerulean and Golden Winged Warblers.  Both of these warblers were ones I have seen but never photographed and had been seen in the County recently.  I was unsuccessful at both spots.  The Cerulean was a long shot and my attempt at the Golden Winged was hampered by the rains that finally came along with heavy winds.  But I added some more species for the day and got some nice photos of an Ovenbird.  We had heard many on the morning walk but no photos.  At the Cerulean spot they seemed to be everywhere and were much more cooperative.



And even though I did not find the Golden Winged Warbler in the on again off again, rain, I added several new birds for the day including a Northern Harrier, Eastern Meadowlark and, a favorite, Bobolink.  The area I birded was more open country and was quite lovely and almost traffic free – always a treat.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier



Maybe I am remembering my own Northwest in the winter and not the spring, but there were very few raptors seen on all of my Eastern trips and Vermont was no exception,  But there were many Turkey Vultures including a rather gruesome sight.  Driving on a quiet road, a number of Turkey Vultures were perched in trees on both sides of the road.  I figured there must be a carcass nearby.  There was.  A dead and bloody Turkey Vulture was on the road ahead.  Some of the perched birds returned to it after I passed by.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I returned to the West Rutland Marsh for a last time that evening hoping for a repeat of the experience from the previous night.  I heard a couple of American Bitterns and some Virginia Rails but failed to find the hoped for Sora as I dodged raindrops.

The next morning I continued my trip driving through the Green Mountains on my way to New Hampshire.  On my 50/50/50 day with much needed help from Sue Elliott and Sue Wetmore, I was able to observe 75 species.  The thunderstorm never came and the rain was too little and too late to seriously hamper my birding.  I wondered how many warblers were in all of those green trees that I drove through.  I also wondered if Ethan Allen was a birder…

Tawas, Ticks and Tornadoes: Lifers in Michigan – Kirtland’s Warbler and Henslow’s Sparrow

When I was initially planning the Michigan part of my Eastern Birding Marathon, I knew I wanted to see a Kirtland’s Warbler but I did not think I could do that as part of a 50 species day.  So I thought I would bird somewhere in the Ann Arbor area and then head north for the Kirtland’s Warbler on a following day and then head to upstate New York.  But then two women entered the calculations and favorably changed my plans.

First I contacted Karen Markey, a superb birder in the Ann Arbor area seeking her help in choosing birding locations and maybe her company on my 50 species day.  Then the new special lady in my life, Cindy Bailey, said she would like to join me for part of my trip.  Karen told me about the Tawas Point Birding Festival which she assured me would enable me to find 50 species in a day and which included a field trip to see Kirtland’s Warblers.   Cindy was game even though it meant a pretty hectic schedule that included a short visit to Magee Marsh the day after the flight from Seattle and then a long drive to Tawas.  It worked perfectly…

The Magee Marsh story will be written later, but as good as it was, it was relatively slow and definitely not a fallout with easy to see close in warblers in every tree.  I had not exactly promised that to Cindy – a beginning birder for sure – but I hoped for that to build her interest.  Tawas came to the rescue.  Our first outing was an early morning bus ride to the Pine River Preserve – one of the areas carefully managed for the Kirtland’s Warbler.  It was led by Sam Burckhardt who is intimately involved as a volunteer in the Kirtland’s story and by Eric O’Neil from Fish and Wildlife.

Sam Burckhardt


Eric O’Neil


The same trip the day before had been successful…sort of.  A number of Kirtland’s Warblers had been heard but at most there had been a brief visual sighting – maybe.  I had never seen or heard a Kirtland’s Warbler before.  I would be disappointed without a visual, so it would still be a much sought after ABA Life Bird even if just heard, but I really wanted to see one and really wanted a photo.  There was high anticipation as we neared the habitat area and then the bus stopped.  I was surprised.  On one side of the road was a seemingly mature forest with tall trees.  On the other side, the trees were much smaller and much shorter and it was these trees that were the favored ones for the warbler.

Within moments of getting off the bus, Sam heard a Kirtland’s Warbler  singing.  Maybe ten minutes later one popped up briefly – a visual – a Lifer.  More singing from elsewhere and then ten minutes after that one came fully into the open and sang for us and I had my photo.   All told we heard at least 8 individuals and had visuals of two males and one female.  It appeared to Sam and Eric that one male and the female were pairing up – a very encouraging sign.

Kirtland’s Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler1

The Kirtland’s Warbler is a great conservation success story.  Almost extinct 50 years ago with fewer than 200 pairs, today there are more than 2500 pairs.  The Forest Service has protected and expanded the Jack Pine habitat with controlled fire burns as well as preventing major fire damage. Things look good on the limited breeding grounds but as Sam explained, there are grave concerns in the wintering area in the Bahamas.  Changed farming practices threaten the availability of the insects needed to sustain the warblers there.  Time will tell.

I was privileged to spend a lot of time with Sam Burckhardt who shared his great local knowledge to help me plan the rest of the trip to find 50 species on this day.  Being able to do that with the Kirtland’s Warbler as part of the story was more than I had originally hoped for.  Our next stop added not only more species for the day but also a wonderful favorite bird – a Red Headed Woodpecker.  [Sam was having a big day as well.  Sandhill Cranes had hatched a chick on his property and like a proud grandpa, he was eager to get back home to see if the second egg had hatched.  Hoping it did…]

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red Headed WP1

By the time our morning tour was over, the species count was approaching 50 and there had been some other really good birds as well, especially a flyover Northern Goshawk, but by far the best part for me was having Cindy fully engaged and excited.  This literally was only her 4th day of birding and what a start – great birds including Black Oystercatcher and both Harlequin and Long Tailed Ducks at Semiahmoo, many wonderful birds in Eastern Washington on our trip joined by Ann Marie Wood, a half day at Magee Marsh and now a Kirtland’s Warbler and a Red Headed Woodpecker in Michigan.  And it got better.

The “better” was at Tawas Point State Park.  When we first got there, we took a wrong turn and headed off to the beach where it was windy, cold and relatively birdless.  Then we hit the correct trail and there we found the birds.  And unlike at Magee Marsh, many were low in small trees and much easier to see often with multiple birds in the same tree.  These were among the highlights:  Clay Colored Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole, 13 warbler species, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose Breasted Grosbeak.  One of the Warblers was a very rare Kentucky Warbler.  

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow5

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole with Orange

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Ruby Throated Hummingbird1

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager3

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Rose Breasted Grosbeak Juvenile

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler

Chestnut Sided Warbler

Chestnut Sided Warbler1

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Rumped Warbler - Myrtle

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler3

The photos are all of birds that were close and relatively easy to see.  Nowhere’s near the crowds of Magee but there were many birders enjoying these beauties.  The Tawas Festival, organized and run by Michigan Audubon, is low key and accessible and should grow in future years.  I would like to come back for several days in the future.  This was exactly the experience I had hoped that Cindy would experience and she was enthralled by the lovely birds and found many on her own.  We ended the day with a trip to the Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area, another place recommended by Sam Burckhardt.  There we heard the call of the Whippoorwill which does indeed sound like Whip Poor Will – over and over.  After two long days, this was proof positive that Cindy was a trooper and at day’s end we had 79 species.  This was State #35 with 50 species in a day for my 50/50/50 Adventure – a great day indeed.

The next day Cindy and I headed off to a couple of non-birding vacation days at Niagara Falls, but we had one more birding stop.  A Henslow’s Sparrow had been reported at 25 Mile Road in New Baltimore, Michigan.  There were also Bobolinks in the area.  It was mostly on the way, so we made a stop in threatening weather.  I immediately heard Bobolinks when we arrived at the unmowed grassy field.  Cindy heard them, too, and we had distant visuals.  That was at a private field and we stayed on the edge.  A short way further along the road there was a public field.  We heard more Bobolinks and headed into the field for a better look and possibly a chance for a Henslow’s Sparrow.  This was a brilliant stupid move.  Brilliant because we got better looks of Bobolinks and really brilliant because I heard the distinctive call of a Henslow’s Sparrow which then flushed for a quick confirming look.  But stupid because we forgot about ticks and almost really stupid because as we got farther out into the field the rain started.  We got back to the car just before a true downpour … and heard a siren.  What was that all about?  My brain slowly engaged and I realized it was an alarm signal for possible tornadoes.  This was confirmed by a sign we saw later.  OK – we did not get drenched and we did not get flattened by a tornado.  But we did each get a tick – pulled off before any biting.  And if we had not ventured out, there would be no Henslow’s Sparrow – my second ABA Lifer in Michigan.  So a good story all around.


Heinz 57th Variety – Black Billed Cuckoo

This story has lots of good pieces.  It is mostly about some wonderful birding at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, PA as part of my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I birded there yesterday starting on my own and then with a new friend Ned Connelly.  That story has to wait, though.  Today the birding was with a great group of birders/folks on the 7:00 a.m. Bird Walk led by Gregg Gorton – a super birder and an even more super guy.  And more on that later as well.

Let’s start with this:  “While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever. Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number. So, he began using the slogan “57 Varieties” in all his advertising.”   That Henry Heinz was the grandfather of Henry John Heinz III, best known as Senator John Heinz who died in an airplane crash on April 5, 1991.

Senator Heinz had helped preserve the Tinicum Marsh Refuge which was was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1965.  In November 1991, the name of the refuge was changed to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum to honor the late Senator.  It is a marvelous place for birds and it was the focus of my visit to Pennsylvania seeking to find 50 species there in a single day.


Since an essential and important part of my 50/50/50 Adventure is to interact with local birders in each state, I had contacted Bert Filemyr, someone I had met on my Tundra Bean Goose Chase and a big time birder in the  Philadelphia area, to see if I might be able to hook up with him.  Like many other birders, Bert was going to be in Magee Marsh while I was in Pennsylvania.  When I told him I would be able to satisfy my need for a local connection by joining with the John Heinz bird walk, he contacted his friend Gregg Gorton and told him of my project.  So when I met Gregg at the refuge before the walk, the stage was set for a great day.

And the stage was different than some of my other days attempting to get 50 species in a day because I had accomplished that the previous day birding first with Ned Connelly as I indicated at the start and then later on my own.  I had seen Ned when I arrived at the Refuge on Friday around 9:00 a.m. after a fairly early departure from Delaware and asked if I could tag along since I had never been there before and was unfamiliar with many of the bird calls and songs.  He welcomed me and we spent the next several hours together ending up with 40 species.  I had seen 5 other species just driving to the Refuge so with a total of 45, even though the plan had been to bird that day just for familiarity for the project day on Saturday, after lunch (with Ned at a very cool diner), I returned to the Refuge alone and following some advice from Ned, I picked up another 10 species and ended the day with 55.

Some good birds from the first day at John Heinz NWR with Ned included 12 species of warbler.  By far the most abundant species was Gray Catbird – maybe 50 seen and constantly heard.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler

Northern Parula

Yellow Rumped Warbler (Myrtle)

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Yellow Warbler – The Most Abundant Warbler – More than 20 for the Day

Yellow Warbler

Common Yellowthroat – The Second Most Abundant Warbler

House Wren1

Northern Waterthrush – Right where Ned said it would be

Northern Waterthrush

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird1

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole1

Orchard Oriole (First Year Male)

Orchard Oriole1

Considering that there were only two duck species (Mallard and Wood Duck) and a single shorebird species (Greater Yellowlegs), I was very pleased to get more than 50 species for the day.  But mostly it had been a great visit with Ned.  He has birded the refuge for decades and finds it especially fulfilling after having lost his wife not long ago.  He was full of stories and knew the Refuge and the birds well.  He was great company and reinforces how intersecting with local folks is such an important and rewarding part of this experience.

And that gets us back to Gregg Gorton.  A recently retired physician, Gregg was simply wonderful.  I had met other birders in the area before meeting him and they all told me how expert he was especially with bird songs and calls.  Dead on.  Like my friend Frank Caruso back home and Mike Resch who I birded with earlier on this trip in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Gregg had both fantastic hearing and a processor that knew every song, call and chip note.  Since this is my greatest weakness, I could not have had better company.  And there were great birders and great people in our group.  Gregg had told the group of my 50 state quest and they were all supportive and helpful and friendly.  It was a great team and we had great birds.  Many species were the same as with Ned or on my own the day before, although some of those were missed this day.  However, there were many new ones as well including 5 new raptors: Red Tailed, Red Shouldered and Cooper’s Hawks. Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle.  I also added two new warblers, Chestnut Sided and Black Throated Green although I missed two seen by others in the group, Canada and Bay Breasted Warblers.

I also had much better looks at and photos of our two vireos – Red Eyed and Warbling.   Some sunshine helped.

Red Eyed Vireo

Red Eyed Vireo2

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo1

There are lots of stories I could add and definitely lots of thank yous to share, but it is late and I have to head off to Virginia early tomorrow, so I will add two quickly and then get to the close and to the story of the title of this post.   Two very fun sightings were of two little birds on two little nests,  The first was a Ruby Throated Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the East, and the second was a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher – not much larger.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird on Nest

Ruby Throated Hummingbird on Nest1

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher on Nest

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher on Nest

Coming to the end of our great morning after 5 hours, we reached the Pump Station on the Pipeline – a Hotspot within the Refuge.  A real-time messaging service is used by birders at Heinz telling of special observations.  Earlier there was a message that a Black Billed Cuckoo had been seen there.  Not only is this species a rarity for the Refuge, it also had special appeal to me as I had only seen them twice before – more than 40 years ago – and I did not have a photo.  I thought one might be possible later at Magee Marsh, but not here.   When we got to the Pump Station, Denis Brennan was there.  I had met him the day before with Ned, and Denis had seen the Cuckoo about 15 minutes earlier.  It had not been calling.  This is where being with a group of birders, especially good ones and motivated ones is really beneficial.  After diligent searching and great patience the Cuckoo was seen – high up in a tree and distant and blocked by branches.  I got a quick visual but no photo.  It moved.  Another view.  After much hide and seek I finally got a great look and a photo – and then an even better one.  The Black Billed Cuckoo was the 57th species I had seen that day at the Refuge – Variety 57.  Much more importantly the lifer photo was number 698 in the ABA area.  I should be able to get 2 or more additional ones on the remainder of this trip getting me to the magic number of 700.

Black Billed Cuckoo

Black Billed Cuckoo

That ended a wonderful day with wonderful birds, at a wonderful place with wonderful people.  Since Gregg had mentioned my quest to the others at the start of the trip, it had come up in discussions with many of them during the time together.  They were all so positive and encouraging and interested.  The birds are great but it really is about the people!!

[I have been traveling for almost two weeks now and this is the first time I have been able to post anything in these blogs.  There have been lots of other great stories and successes getting over 50 species in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.  The success in Pennsylvania made that State #31.  Still a long way to go.  Still lots of fun ahead.  And I will eventually get to those blog posts…someday.]